What’s it about: The year is 16127. Four decades have passed since the colonists of Nerva Beacon returned to repopulate the once-devastated planet Earth – and the chosen few are finding the business of survival tough. Far beyond the sterile safety of sanitised Nerva City, transmat scientist Roger Buchman has brought his family to an island surrounded by what they once called Loch Lomond, hoping to re-establish the colony he was forced to abandon many years before. But something else resides in the Loch. A pestilent alien infestation that the Doctor, beaming in from Nerva City, remembers only too well from his time aboard the Beacon… The Wirrn are back. And they’re hungry.
Softer Six: Isn’t amazing how Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor manages to fall into a comfortable chemistry with his companions so quickly these days? His rapport with Evelyn is second to none, he has a gentler bond with Peri on audio bridging the gap between Revelation of the Daleks and Trial of a Time Lord and he got on with Charley like a house on fire despite the fact that she was clearly keeping secrets. In the opening episode you would swear that the Doctor and Flip had been travelling together for a couple of months rather than just three stories because the interplay between Colin Baker and Lisa Greenwood is so warm and inviting. The Doctor cannot fathom an idea that he has thought being anything other than extremely clever! Much like the fourth Doctor in Pyramids of Mars the Doctor has to be cruel to be kind and informs Iron’s parents that no matter how much the Wirrn sounds like their son he died 15 years ago. He once again becomes the lonely alien wanderer, distanced from the emotion of the injustice and dealing with the practicalities of what is going on. Its great drama for the Doctor to have to beam Iron to his death in front of his mother, constantly having to account for his actions. He never needs the TARDIS to tell him which period of human history he is in, he just needs to test how much patience the people have! He has to point out (in fairness) that the Wirrn mothers are fighting for survival just as the humans are, again he seems coldly distant and fascinating. When the Doctor tells Flip that she is going home and then tells her that is the TARDIS it gave me goosebumps. They’re just lovely together.
Flippin’ Marvellous: Just like the Doctor had a spectacular entrance in The Curse of Davros so Flip gets one here as she transmat’s onto the Earth and throws up all over the floor! She’s so cute when she grabs the heated coat and swears she will never take it off. Flip isn’t a sixties reject and blanches at the Doctor’s attempts to send her to the kitchen but for the chance of hot drink and a warm oven she capitulates. Even other people can see that she doesn’t take any of the Doctor’s nonsense and he clearly respects her for it although she has to correct Veronica on one thing – he is not her father despite how they act. A father/daughter relationship between these two is exactly what has been set up and now it is working so effectively (and intimately) I hope it is not the last we see of them together. Splitting up is never a good idea especially when there are human incubating Wirrn about but when Flip is the lightest of the lot she is the one who can fly the ship to the nearest outpost for help. The Doctor can’t make his mind up whether Flip is the bravest girl he has ever met or simply foolhardy. If people had a hard time liking Flip before I don’t see how they could still feel that way after she crashes, breaks a couple ribs and comes too with dark blood spilling onto the ice. Her blood has frozen her to the ice…and with the Wirrn surrounding. Absolutely terrifying. She is resourceful too, making a splint and forcing herself to walk in the direction of the Doctor whilst trying to think up a decent walking song! Her desperation as the Wirrn try and smash their way through into the way station is really uncomfortable to endure. Once she is transmatted to Nerva City it plays out precisely as The Dominators should have been with Flip trying to convince this indolent society that there is a very real threat on its way. Asking politely never seems to work for her. The murder is hard for Flip to grasp because she has only ever seen it in films where you know it will be alright at the end. Here she is facing real death on a terrible scale. As soon as she realises children are being devoured Flip stops thinking inwardly and starts asking what they have to hand that could help to stop this. I was already convinced that Flip was a keeper but when she thinks the Doctor is going to take her home and accepts that fate despite the fact that she is desperate to stay with him…well she’s just adorable, isn’t she? The Doctor gave her the chance to help people and she apologises for lumbering herself on him…how could he possibly refuse her?
Standout Performance: I would say this is Lisa Greenwood’s finest hour yet and she gets to truly get her teeth into some dramatic material. The horror she experiences in this story should win even the staunchest critic over.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Porridge! Now that says Scotland to me!’
‘Tell me one thing before I touch your hand…’ – shitting hell! This is seriously creepy!
‘Meet my new family…’
‘Humans! Not so much indomitable but exasperating!’
Great Ideas: I hate to be churlish (no I don’t but I just thought I’d say it) but the family beaming down onto the Earth’s surface in the very first scene does something more emotive and imaginative with the Nerva setting than the entirety of Destination: Nerva. Pair bonding was mentioned in The Ark in Space and it is described here as having a rigid control over their genetic pool. Its been 40 years since they returned to Earth and the human race has lost a lot; population resources are scarce and they are having to do more with less. I love the idea of a story set in Scotland after the events of The Ark in Space around a Loch that is completely frozen – without even trying I can see an atmospheric landscape of misty ice and chittering Wirrn spawn emerging from the darkness. Advance parties were sent out when the colonists on Nerva first awoke to prepare the land for everybody else but all they did was create a mess and vanish…I got a sinking feeling as soon as I heard that. Veronica and Roger are very cleverly written as being on the verge of splitting up but they are forced to stay together through genetic bonding. It’s a really clever way of getting us close to these people and exploring the injustice of the sexual morality of this era. Can I just say that I was tucking into a Rivita with cucumber and tomato on it when the Doctor happily informed all of the diners that they are about tuck into Wirrn mucus! Thanks William Gallagher! My lunch remains untouched. Husks of people eaten through! Bleugh! The economy of the storytelling (very few speaking parts but all well defined) and the growing horror of the first episode is superbly done. Twigs reaching up out of the ice…what a creepy way to describe Wirrn legs breaking through and reaching out to the sky! You can hear them tearing free of the ice as Flip lies there unconscious…my teeth were permanently clenched! When Roger picks up 400 other lifeforms on the ice you realise the scale of the danger. Thirty years on Robert Holmes’ stomach turning concept of the gestating Wirrn breeding inside people and then eating them from the inside out still packs an incredible punch. A purring voice follows Flip wherever she goes and frightens her by telling her she has just looked at him. Its clear as soon as we learn about their dead son that Veronica and Roger are hiding something dark and I was genuinely surprised when we learnt that this was the disembodied voice that was haunting Flip. Iron drowned in the lock when left unattended and beamed into a Wirrn by his father who misunderstood the technology. Nice use of a South African accent at Nerva City, tying in with The Sontaran Experiment. Iron haunting Flip was bad enough but Veronica’s reaction to hearing her dead son talk to her is a deeply unpleasant way of reminding us of how the Wirrn eat away the body and latch onto the soul of their incubators. The subversion here is that this time it is the human corpse leeching off the Wirrn rather than the other way around but its just as unsettling. The Wirrn eat through the power lines to isolate them. Via the transmat the Iron infested Wirrn absorbs Sheer’s knowledge too airing Veronica’s dirty laundry in a very public way as father and son finally meet in a Wirrn host. What an insane, nasty idea having Roger killed by the son that wasn’t his and the man who betrayed him. The Wirrn wants to invade Nerva City and feast on its populace and via the transmat beam he can be replicated a thousand times over so that one hungry, pregnant insect can become an army. Iron is everywhere on the face of the planet, a nightmarish threat for Veronica who is menaced by a disfigured version of her son. At first I thought Toastie was something of a dead character but she used brilliantly in the last episode to remind Veronica that there is something live for. The Doctor gives the Wirrn the chance to breed elsewhere but drunk on power they feel as though they have the entire planet and its populace at their disposal.
Audio Landscape: The transmat beam, a gas stove being ignited, a humming wind, the Nerva binky bonky transmat, the choking micro light, buzzing on the wind, crunchy icy footsteps, twitching mandibles, insectoid screams, the overlapping voices in Nerva city, creaking, cracking ice, applause, Olympic cheer, screaming victims running from the chittering Wirrn, smashing windows, lasers firing.
Musical Cues: Beautifully done as ever with some genuinely creepy atmospherics as Flip is lost and alone on the ice.
Standout Scene: The Wirrn mothers went through the agony of having their own eggs planted in themselves, being eaten from within just to give their children a chance. It suddenly gives the Wirrn a very humane angle whilst still being utterly terrifying. That’s the sort of intelligence William Gallagher injects into his script.
Result: Very scary and insidious listening which is told with a skilfully economic cast and a director who is completely devoted to frightening the pants of you. Flip goes through a living hell in this episode and she does it quite alone without the comfort of the Doctor to protect her. Lisa Greenwood is phenomenal in Wirrn Isle, allowing Flip to be a victim whilst never once forgetting how brave, resourceful and feisty she is. I was doing the audio equivalent of hiding behind the sofa as she was menaced by disembodied voices, hulking Wirrn whilst trying to hold her own broken body together. Like Lisa Bowerman’s best ever direction in A Thousand Tiny Wings, director Nick Briggs knows precisely when to make noise and when to snatch it away and he uses the silences to allow the audience to fill in some nasty blanks before assaulting you with some very unpleasant sound effects. It’s a claustrophobic little thriller for the first two episodes before expanding to answer some of the loose threads hanging at the end of The Ark in Space as we get to visit Nerva City. Suddenly the Wirrn are everywhere like a pandemic of bloated insects gorged with eggs to plant into human incubators. Just like Spare Parts the inclusion of a family unit equates into fantastic drama and the secrets and tragic past of the Buchman’s gives this scare fest a real beating heart. The Wirrn are such an imaginative, menacing threat and Gallagher manages to unlock plenty of their potential whilst flaunting some imposing imagery. This arc has been three for three for old Sixie and his new companion, a truly impressive beginning for their adventures together. Let’s hope we hear more from them soon. Its three very different stories (a character drama, a post-modern mind fuck and a gripping slow burn horror story) but all three of them have been just about perfect in their own unique way. A knockout start to 2012 and I would advise that you listen to this one in the dark. You wont regret it: 8/10